One year ago poached quince
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN
It’s been a momentous week. Everything seems intense. The Supermoon. The American election results. The death of Leonard Cohen. Even the warm weather in Jerusalem so late in the autumn.
It rains here only in the winter months, and there’s a special word in Hebrew for the “first rain” – yoreh. There has been one day of rain so far, hello old friend, how amazing to hear that sound after a 7 month absence, but now we are back in a glorious warm late summer and the forecasters are warning us that that lonely cloudburst was not the “first rain” after all… so everything is topsy-turvy.
BACK TO BASICS
A strange out-of-kilter time drives you back to basics. And what could be more basic than cabbage?
In Eastern Europe and Russia, cabbage was a staple, along with potatoes.
Both were hardy and could see you through the long cold winters. You salted cabbage after you harvested it to preserve if for use throughout the year. (See the Food is Love recipe for Sauerkraut here.) It's trending now, since fermented foods have become ‘healthy’.
Pickles are being talked up to help with everything from autism and depression to actual gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome. And then there's weight loss. Could it be as simple as eat pickles and you'll be thin???
I was asked by a daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors if I had a recipe for cabbage rolls and realised that yes I did and it was time to include it here. It comes from lovely Jerusalem grandmother, Tooby Lehrner. Her cabbage rolls are stuffed with minced meat, and cooked not in tomato sauce (the standard recipe) but in a soup flavoured with pickled cabbage, which is more salty-sour and incredibly tasty.
We also make a vegan version, stuffed with rice and veges, see recipe below. Old tastes in a new package! Or new tastes in an old package... take your pick.
Ilana Lehrner has been known since birth as Tooby – little bird. She’s had a hard life, including forced transportation to concentration camps during World War Two and migration to Israel late in life. But despite all this she is bubbly, constantly laughing and full of energy.
Perhaps nature does trump nurture.
“I was able to be happy, inside myself, even in the concentration camp,” says Tooby.
It was hard to photograph her preparing the cabbage rolls. She’s so quick, there’s barely time to focus the camera. She has the speedy reflexes of a woman who worked as a caterer for years, but she has the energy, period.
In her late 80s, Tooby still minces her own meat, and makes her own jams, the secret ingredient in her pastries. She also continues to dispense cooking advice to women who call for help, talking them through their cooking crises over the phone.
When I tasted her Gerbaud (Szerbo) slice – yeast pastry layered with ground walnuts and apricot jam, topped with chocolate – it was pure ecstasy. I found myself closing my eyes. What was it that set it apart? The home-made apricot jam, which lifts her version of this Hungarian classic to another level.
Her freezer is stocked full of cakes and sweet dumplings in case guests pop in. Friends, or any of her 2 children, 4 grandchildren and - so far - 3 great-grandchildren. Tooby says she's had so much good luck she feels as if her survival was destined, 'meant'.
“There is no other way to explain it,” she says.
Tooby is from Oradea, a large town in north west Romania, where the Transylvanian mountains come down to meet the plain. In fact, it’s most accurate to say that the town, nestled on a river, is in Transylvania, as control changed between Romania and Hungary. During World War Two, from 1940 to late 1944, Oradea was considered part of Hungary. This would have a huge impact on Tooby’s life.
Before the War, Oradea had a population of around 85,000, half Romanians, just under one third – some 25,000 - Jews, and the rest Hungarians.
The town is chocolate box beautiful, an orderly, gracious survivor. There’s a town map from 1617.
It flourished during the Hapsburg Empire, entering its Golden Age in the 1750s. It’s not where you expect a story of devastation to unfold.
Tooby was born in 1927, the youngest of 7 children; the sunny baby of her family.
Oradea had Jewish doctors, lawyers, manufacturers and farmers. In 1902 the Police Chief was a Jew and Jews were proportionately represented in the municipal council.
There were 20 synagogues scattered throughout the city, including 2 downtown on the riverbank.
The community also ran a hospital and chevra kadisha, a Jewish women's association, a grammar school, a trade school for boys and girls, a yeshiva, a soup kitchen. It was thriving energetic Jewish life.
But none of that – and not even the memory of the city’s Jewish Police Chief - could protect the Jews of Oradea once World War Two began.
Hungary annexed Transylvania. The new government implemented anti-Semitic laws, deporting Jews not born in the area and preventing Jewish children from going to school.
The Jews of Oradea limped along, until March 1944 when Nazi Germany invaded Hungary, its former ally, and everything changed.
Tooby was 16 and her sister Moni was 21 when they were moved into the ghetto in Oradea in April 1944.
Moni had just married her childhood sweetheart. It was a sliver of joy, as life in the ghetto was difficult. Overcrowding was severe, there was little food, and local authorities often interrupted the electricity and water supply.
However the Jews of Oradea, including Tooby and her mother and sister, didn’t suffer there long. The ghetto was 'liquidated' in 9 transports during May and June 1944.
By then the Nazis were very practised at mass murder. They were able to collect and transport the Jews of rural Hungary in a matter of weeks – around 430,000 people, including 27, 215 Jews from Oradea.
Tooby, Moni and their mother were among them. They were loaded onto a cattle train in dreadful conditions with no idea where they were being taken. When the train doors opened in June 1944, Tooby says they still had no idea where they were or what awaited them.
They would soon learn.
They were at Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
There on the platform German soldiers from the SS unit separated Tooby from her mother and her sister Moni.
Moni, who had wrapped 3 scarves around her head, was sent with their mother to the right side, Tooby to the left.
They didn’t understand the significance of this decision; that it meant that Tooby's sister was to be killed immediately along with her mother.
But Tooby’s mother sensed something, so she turned to one of the SS officers.
Speaking German, she told him that her daughter only looked old due to the scarves, but was actually young, so could she go with her younger sister to help her? The soldier lifted Moni’s scarf, and saw that it was true, she was young and let her cross to where Tooby was waiting.
They didn’t know that they had been earmarked for life, their mother for death.
They didn’t know that their mother’s last act was to save Moni.
They also didn’t know that Moni, who had been married for just one month before the transport to Auschwitz, was pregnant.
Once they found out, it became Tooby’s job to keep her sister alive. This was incredibly difficult, because of the combined shock of losing their mother and discovering what Auschwitz actually was.
Melbourne grandmother Baba Schwartz was transported to Auschwitz at almost the same time as Tooby, in June 1944, from another part of rural Hungary. You can read her detailed description of the horrors of life in Auschwitz at that time here.
Baba describes the strain involved in entering this parallel universe, dedicated to death. Both Baba and Tooby survived because they were moved out of Auschwitz within a short time of being transported there. That was how they avoided being murdered, the fate of more than 1 million human beings in that dark place.
The Nazis were losing the War, and their need for workers overcame their genocidal aims – at least as far as young fit prisoners were concerned. Old people and women with children, and of course the children themselves, were still murdered on arrival at Auschwitz right up to the end of 1944.
After around 5 weeks, Tooby and her sister Moni were sent to Gleiwitz, a smaller satellite camp 80 kilometres away.
Gleiwitz (Gilwice in Polish) was a rolling stock repair yard which was transformed into a camp in early 1944. There were no gas chambers or crematoria; prisoners worked as slave labourers. Around 1200 prisoners first built the camp, as well as roads and a nearby airstrip, and then worked in the machine shop repairing railroad cars. Women made coal tar.
Tooby remembers one period where they had no food or water for 3 days, and both she and her pregnant sister barely survived. But at Gleiwitz Tooby worked indoors and did manage to scrounge food for her sister. By December 1944, Moni was ready to give birth.
The only doctor in their block at the concentration camp was from their hometown of Oradea. He told Tooby what to do – “Make it clean, Tooby” – when she found a small patch of filthy concrete for her sister. There was nothing much else in the way of materials or medicine. When the time came, Tooby listened to her sister’s muffled screams and felt powerless.
“I was a very young 16 year old, and I kept thinking my mother should be here, that I shouldn’t be hearing this,” says Tooby.
Still, Moni succeeded in giving birth to a baby boy, a miracle in those conditions; life in the midst of death. Initially she was able to feed him; but soon her milk dried up.
Before he reached 12 weeks, her baby died.
She hadn’t named him.
As the Russian army advanced, the Germans began retreating from Auschwitz and the surrounding camps. They took their prisoners with them. In January 1945, the two sisters were forced out of Gleiwitz on foot. They ended up being transported to the women’s camp at Ravennsbruck in Germany 600 kilometres away.
Both girls were at death’s door. Tooby contracted typhus which nearly killed her. The sisters became separated. Tooby was able to receive treatment because the war was ending. In fact, after the war she was treated in a German hospital, one of the remarkable strands of her life experience.
“Do you see? Only one month after the war, and Germans were trying to save me!” says Tooby.
In late 1945, Tooby returned home to Oradea, where she learned that all of her siblings who were in Europe (their oldest brother had migrated before the War) had survived – including Moni!
The Red Cross had taken Moni to Switzerland and nursed her back to life there.
Tooby and her siblings were amongst the 2,000 Jews – less than 10 per cent of Oradea’s pre-War Jewish population - who survived.
When they all met again in Oradea, Tooby saw that as another miracle.
“After the war, it wasn’t like now, everybody wanted to get married” says Tooby.
She was by now 19. Once she recovered her health, she became the pretty, vital girl from before the War, reconnecting to that basic part of herself. She says she received many offers of marriage “including from very rich men."
When she was 21, she chose Stefan Lehrner, “the gentlest, kindest man” from among her many suitors.
Tooby and Stefan had a wonderful marriage lasting almost 60 years.
“He was always looking out for me, buying me things, touching me. He was a wonderful husband and father. The best," says Tooby smiling happily and sadly at once.
Ten years after his death, she says, she still misses him.
Tooby and Stefan decided to stay on in Romania, even after it became a Communist state. But once Nicolae Ceausescu became Communist leader in the 1960s, Jews were no longer allowed to hold managerial jobs. Tooby was fired from her position running the local cinema. She and Stefan saw the options for their children narrowing.
In 1970, she and Stefan, now in their 40s, made the decision to migrate, and start all over again. Tooby followed two of her best friends to Jerusalem.
"I gave Sylvia a bed in 1945 when she first came home from the concentration camps. And she gave me a bed when we came here in 1970," says Tooby gratefully.
Tooby had just begun highschool when World War Two began, and didn’t get a chance to finish her schooling, or to learn how to cook from her mother or grandmother.
In Israel she asked older Hungarian women how they prepared certain dishes, but most she recreated from memory: asking herself what her grandmother’s food tasted like, and from there going on to stuff capsicums and cabbage leaves with meat and rice, and to stew them; she would braise chicken in paprika, and make pasta called nockedly to eat with the rich sauce; she'd boil up kilograms of summer fruit to make jams, and prepare dumplings and pastries with sweet and savoury fillings.
In Israel Tooby also began to cook professionally.
At first, as a new migrant, she worked in the canteen of Israel's parliament, serving former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and legendary Israeli politicians including Abba Eban. She was learning all the time.
“After a function there, I’d undo the flowers to see how they’d done them. My head was full of ideas for a business of my own, and that’s how I began one.”
She left the Knesset and worked in a downtown Jerusalem restaurant that specialised in Hungarian cuisine. Then she opened a catering business, cooking her rich Hungarian specialties at weddings, barmitzvas and other celebrations. Needless to say, she prepared all the food for her own children’s weddings.
“If I had my time over, I would only do cooking. I love it, and you bring a great deal of pleasure to people,” she says.
Since I first met her, Tooby has fallen and cracked her spine. The constant pain is a set-back. She does not feel up to participating further in this project, which is a shame, since she is a great cook and a wonderful person, but we are lucky to have this recipe from her repertoire. We wish her a speedy recovery.
This is the less well-known version of the signature Hungarian dish, cooked in meat or chicken broth with pickled cabbage, rather than a sweeter tomato based sauce. It's sometimes known as “white” stuffed cabbage as opposed to the red tomato sauce.
It's mouth wateringly delicious.
Romanian Stuffed Cabbage
Makes 25 rolls
FOR THE LEAVES
- One white cabbage
1. Cut out the root of the cabbage, leaving a cone shaped hole in the bottom. Tooby did it before she boiled the cabbage, but I found it easier to do it afterwards.
2. Put the cabbage into a pot of boiling salted water, and leave it over a low heat for 10 minutes or so. The leaves are ready when they fall away from the cabbage. Pull the cabbage leaves apart, and leave them in the salted water in the fridge till you are ready to use them.
3. Drain them, laying them on top of one another, like crepes, so that you can pick them up and fill them easily. Tooby was like a Cuban cigar roller – quick and steady, with a perfect result each time. I was slower, and not as neat. You only get to be that good with practice!
- 1.25 kilos / 2.5 lbs mince meat (Tooby recommends a mix: say ½ kilo/ 1 lb beef, ¾ kilo / 1.5 lb turkey)
- 1 onion, chopped finely
- ¾ cup uncooked white rice
- 5 tablespoon oil
- 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
- 3 tablespoons chicken soup powder
- salt and pepper – 1/2 teaspoon each
- ½ teaspoon sugar
1. Put meat in a large bowl.
2. Fry onion in oil till pale not brown. Let it cool slightly.
3. Add to bowl with meat, along with rice, oil, and spices, including the sugar.
4. Mix, and add 2 -3 tablespoons of water. The mixture has to be sloppy. If it isn’t add a little more oil, or water. This will prevent it from becoming dry. The filling is now ready. Taste it, if you’re that kind of cook, and adjust the seasoning.
5. Lay a cabbage leaf rib side down, so it’s like a (wilted) cup waiting to be filled. Go with the grain, not against it! Place 1 large tablespoon meat mix on the bottom of the cabbage leaf and roll it up as snugly as you can without tearing it. Then poke the ends in neatly, so you are left with a small oblong cabbage parcel. Stack on a plate. Tooby had enough meat to make 20 parcels.
This is ‘waste not, want not’ cooking. If you have any left over cabbage leaves, chop them up to throw in the pot to make the stock.
THIS MAKES A LOT, so make sure you have a big pot on hand.
ingredients for the (large) pot
- 1 tin pickled cabbage, 400 g/ 14 oz – opened and drained. “Pickled in salt is vital. You don’t want it sweet!” Tooby warns.
- ½ onion, chopped
- Extra fresh cabbage, chopped
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- 2 tablespoons chicken soup powder
- Tooby’s secret ingredient: Any cuts of meat you may have – say some off cuts of turkey – for putting into the pot in between the layers of cabbage parcels. Tooby used about 200 grams/7 oz of turkey. But you can use more or less, or none at all. The more you use, the tastier the stock will be.
filling the pot
1. You’ll be layering it, like a trifle. On the bottom, put in the chopped onion, which is raw. Throw 2 handfuls of chopped raw cabbage, any boiled cabbage you have left over from making the parcels and 2 handfuls of drained pickled cabbage You don’t want your stock to be too salty, that’s why draining it is important. If you are using some meat off cuts, throw them in now.
2. Now in go the parcels! Lay them side by side, as tightly as possible. When that layer is full, throw in 2 more handfuls chopped cabbage, 2 more handfuls more pickled cabbage, the fresh dill, and cover with the last layer of cabbage parcels. On top throw any last cabbage leaves and 2-3 more handfuls of drained pickled cabbage.
3. Your pot is ready! Pour water in, till it is about level with the top cabbage parcels. Add 1 -2 tablespoons soup powder, there is no need for extra salt at this stage. "You can always add salt later, you can't take it away," Tooby says.
4. Cook over a low heat for at least an hour. (The vegan ingredients take less time, so it will only need half an hour if you are making the vegan version.)
5. After an hour – or 30 minutes for the vegans - it’s traditional to add a roux to thicken the stock. Known in Hungarian as Rantash, it adds colour and flavor.
Roux - rantash
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons oil
- ½ c water
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
- S and P
1. Mix the oil and the flour in a small pot. When it’s come together, add the water and cook, watching it the whole time, until it incorporates and becomes silky. It looks as if it won’t blend in – and then it does! Repeat till you’ve used all the water. The next step, only seconds away, is burnt and useless flour, and scrapping it and starting again, so don’t take your eye off it now. When it’s silky, and becoming a light tan colour, remove it from the heat and let it cool a little.
2. Add the paprika, and mix, and S and P if using. (Paprika burns easily, which is why you don’t do this over a flame.) You will now have a reddish roux.
3. Add carefully to the pot. If it is too crowded, you may have to remove 1 or 2 cabbage parcels to pour it in. Replace the parcels and shake the pot to make sure the roux spreads.
4. Cook for another 20 minutes. Switch off the heat. The longer it sits now, the better.
Note: Like many of these older traditional cooks, Tooby doesn’t use a tablespoon, she measures into her hand, so tablespoon quantities are generous.
If the Turkey meat is fatty, she boils it, to separate the meat from the fat. The meat goes into the pot, the fat to stray cats.
It's amazing how many of the women in this project, who were once starving, feed stray cats and birds.
Vegan Cabbage Rolls
Makes 30 rolls
When making the vegan version the only thing I changed was the filling, and the cooking time. You only need 30 minutes to cook these. Vegans travel lighter.
The rest of process was the same, just a no-meat filling.
- 1 onion, chopped finely
- 4 sticks celery, chopped
- 150 g roasted chestnuts (I buy these pre-roasted, vaccum sealed from the health food shop)
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup white or brown rice, uncooked
- ¼ cup black lentils
- 1 tomato
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- Optional: half cup peas or endemame beans
- Spices – 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin or caraway seeds
- For flavouring – 1 tablespoon each soy sauce, Chinese rice wine
- 1 tablespoon vegetable soup powder
- 1 tablespoon paprika
1. Fry spices in oil for 30 - 60 seconds. Add onion and celery. Fry for 2-3 minutes, then add one clove chopped garlic, the soy sauce and Chinese wine. After 5 minutes, when the onion is transparent, add the chopped chestnuts. Cook for 2-3 minutes more. Let cool.
2. While that’s cooking, add all the grains to a bowl, with the chopped tomato, the remaining 3 cloves chopped garlic, the chopped parsley and the soup powder and paprika. Add 3 tablespoons water or oil. If you are using the peas or endemame beans, now’s the time. Add them raw, or frozen.
3. Add the slightly cooled pan ingredients to the grain bowl. Mix. You don’t want it too dry, since the grains need liquid to expand. Sloppy is good. You can add any left over liquid to the pot.
4. Now go back to the main recipe and roll it and fold it and roll it again, just as Tooby instructs. Once you have your vegan filling, the rest’s the same... without adding meat to the pot to enrich the stock, obviously! And remember - you only need to cook it for 30 minutes before you add the roux.
NOTE RE RICE
I made this twice, once with white rice and once with brown rice and I preferred it with brown rice. The white rice went soggy too quickly. You can also use burghul or any other grain of your choice.
A mixture is also good eg ¼ cup each rice, lentils, and quinoa. Play around with it and see which mix you like best. I definitely like the black lentils since they hold their shape. You could also add a handful of wild rice, which keeps its slightly chewy texture.
JERUSALEM TEST KITCHEN
I made the vegan version this time, because I don’t cook much meat, and we made it with meat in Sydney. Then we made it less sloppy – we could form it into meatballs. On balance, I think the result wasn’t as good. Tooby’s way is best, you don’t want it too dry.
The good thing about this recipe is that it takes longer to explain in writing than to do and once you have the leaves ready, making the parcels is actually quite fun. When you get the hang of it, it goes quite quickly. Maybe not as quickly as Tooby, who finished this lot in 10 minutes, but she has been doing it for a lifetime...
Also, unlike some other leaves I’ve stuffed for this blog - Leaves I have Stuffed, it’s a book title, isn’t it? - the cabbage retains its shape and no filling seeps out. It’s not delicate, even after it’s been boiled. Good old cabbage!
VERDICT: The vegan version is great. It’s tasty in a way that few vegan dishes are, or maybe I should say it has a distinct European flavor even though it’s vegan. It’s a great take on this classic dish, satisfying and healthy, and you get quite a different result, depending which rice/grains you use. So it never gets boring. Good old cabbage!